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Beating the odds

National | Churches turn the tide in a bellwether battle against state-sponsored gambling in 'Bama

Issue: "More clay than Potter," Oct. 30, 1999

Two Southern governors thought state-sponsored lotteries were an issue that couldn't lose. But the churches and the courts proved them wrong. Given the sudden shift in momentum, gambling forces in other states may want to hedge their bets.

Voters in Alabama on Oct. 12 settled one of the great mysteries of physics. That was the day the irresistible force of "free money" met the immovable object of church opposition. To the surprise of almost everybody, the churches won.

Long opposed to higher taxes, Alabamans for years had resisted efforts to raise taxes supposedly earmarked for the state's public schools, which routinely fall near the bottom in national rankings. Don Siegelman, an up-and-coming Democrat, lost his first bid for governor when he failed to comprehend the level of anti-tax sentiment among voters.

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So last year, in his second attempt at the governor's mansion, Mr. Siegelman changed his tune: He still promised to spend more on public schools, but he proposed to do so through a state-sponsored lottery. It would be painless, he promised. Free money. Everybody wins. Mr. Siegelman certainly won, sweeping aside incumbent Republican Fob James almost solely on the strength of the lottery issue.

As recently as late August, polls showed that 60 percent of Alabama voters still liked the "free money" idea. But then the churches began to weigh in. Almost without exception, pastors across denominational lines condemned the lottery plan as regressive, irresponsible, and unconscionable. By the time voters went to the polls in a special referendum, all those sermons appeared to have had an effect: The lottery was rejected, 54 to 46 percent.

"This was a common cause that brought the churches together," exulted Tom Blackerby, president of the American Family Association of Alabama. "It was an interfaith effort, people from all over, churches that probably hadn't spoken to each other in years."

"This is the biggest anti-gambling week in American history," said Bill Thompson of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and an expert on the gambling industry. "It portends that with the exception of Indian gambling, the spread of gambling is over."

Until now, that spread had been nearly unstoppable. Thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia already have lotteries, while only three-Arkansas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota-had banned them at the ballot box. In June, a federal commission called for a moratorium on new gambling, sending the gambling industry into a spending frenzy. Viewing Alabama as a test case, pro-gambling forces in the state outspent their opponents by a 3-to-1 margin.

Following the defeat in Alabama, the gambling industry turned its attention to South Carolina, another state in which a Democrat, Jim Hodges, had last fall swept into the governor's office on the strength of a pro-gambling platform.

But just two days after the Alabama vote, South Carolina's high court dealt the gambling industry another blow: It ruled unanimously that a statewide referendum on video poker was unconstitutional, leaving intact a law that will outlaw the game as of July 1, 2000. Theoretically, the state legislature could reverse its own law, but even Gov. Hodges conceded he didn't have the votes for such an outcome. "It's deader than Elvis," said Larry Huff, a spokesman for the anti-gambling group Legacy Alliance.

The court ruling was a dramatic turnaround for the $2.8 billion video-poker industry, which was riding high after spending $3 million to defeat former Gov. David Beasley, a fierce opponent of gambling, last November. Mr. Beasley said he felt "some degree of vindication" in the decision and insisted his decision to oppose gambling was the right one, even though it cost him his job. "I would have done it again," he said. "It was worth risking everything to see this day."

As in Alabama, South Carolina churches had been mobilizing against the planned referendum, coordinating strategy and packing rallies in large convention centers. Religious leaders said they had never seen such passion on any issue, including abortion. Despite heavy spending by the gambling industry, polls showed 61 percent of South Carolinians intended to vote against video poker on Nov. 2.

Anti-gambling forces will try to maintain that cohesion until November 2000, when voters will face a referendum on a state-run lottery. They hope that with back-to-back defeats in Alabama and South Carolina, the Bible Belt will not become the Bookie Belt.

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